10 Things Learned in 10 Cooks // Part One

Blind Spots

My definition of blind spot: you don’t know what you don’t know.

When I dove into barbecue I most definitely didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’m sure that was part of the appeal – a whole new world to explore and learn about. There are occasional periods in life when I’m content to cruise along and simply show up, but most of the time I feel like I’m slacking if I’m not working towards something, which usually involves some sort of learning.
As I write this I’m about to head out with my partner Andy on a month-long road trip, working and eating in barbecue joints all over the state of Texas. Our current knowledge of barbecue will most likely be dwarfed by what we learn in our first hour at our first stage. (A “stage,” derived from French and pronounced “stahge,” is basically an internship in a kitchen, maybe used so adults don’t have to call themselves interns?)
Before the impending knowledge big bang happens and there’s a new universe of what I didn’t know I didn’t know, I thought it would be fun to have a written record of ten things I didn’t know I didn’t know as of early September, which is when I bought my smoker and some firewood and a pork shoulder and had my first cook (“cook”: see number 10 😉)

Enough Already, Let's Goooooooo

This is in a very rough reverse order of importance, starting this week with learnings ten through six, leading up oh-so-dramatically to number one, revealed next week.

10/ A “cook” is an event
Until August or September, I only knew the word cook as a verb. In the barbecue world it’s commonly used as a noun, similar to the way “cookout” is a noun. But while “cookout” denotes casual and fun, and “cooking” is vague, “cook” feels more deliberate. 
“We’re cooking this Thursday.”
“We’re doing a cook this Thursday.”
9/ There’s more to smoking meat than I thought
When I had my podcast epiphany that I wanted to be an outlet for killer barbecue brisket, I was working with an intuitive underlying assumption, which was: 

How hard could it be?


It turns out that there is way more to it than I thought. The various types of smokers, the nuances of fire management (see lesson eight below), trimming, cooking, wrapping meat…
All that said, I’m sure I’m not the least intelligent, least innately talented to successfully prepare delicious barbecue. As with most endeavors – but it seems especially true in barbecue because of the amount of time it takes – work ethic counts for a lot.
8/ Fire is not caused by flames

Is that obvious? It wasn’t obvious to me.

Fire is caused by heat. If an object gets hot enough, it will burn.  When I used to make fires and not think about it I would throw a log on an burning fire and it would start to burn. But the flames of the existing fire were only one component of the heat produced by that fire.

Why is this relevant? Well, on mornings when it’s been cold, a) it takes longer to get a fire started, and b) it doesn’t matter if a fire is roaring; if the wood I’m adding is cold, it won’t burn right away.

None of this is rocket science and it might even be considered intuitive; but it wasn’t immediately intuitive to me. It turns out that it’s helpful to pre-heat logs before they go on the already-existing fire.

Wood warming on the offset

I do this by placing them on top of the firebox before they go into the fire (above) or in the separate aluminum tub that was my second best equipment investment so far…see point #7 below 🙂

7/ A wireless thermometer has been my best investment so far
The first thing I did when I bought my smoker was install a thermometer on the lid.  But whenever I left the smoker to go inside to prep other food I wouldn’t know what was going on with the fire. As I mentioned previously, fire is not entirely predictable. So I bought a thermometer that has a probe that sits inside the cook chamber that transmits to a wireless digital readout. Now I’m able to step away for five minutes and keep an eye out for precipitous drops or spikes in temperature.
Second best investment: An aluminum tub. When the fire starts burning too hot I can pull wood out of the firebox and rest it in the tub. This also allows me to heat up cold wood.
Third best investment: This dumb steel rod (photo forthcoming). I debated buying it – $20 for bent steel felt extravagant – but it’s been invaluable for moving wood and coals that are too far for me to get to with my long tongs.
These three tools are physical representations of the biggest lesson I’ve learned during my barbecue journey:  Small controlled fires are nuanced and.demand full attention.
6/ I don’t love cooking at home for commercial purposes
Once I discerned that I was getting into the barbecue game, what next? Well, I read a book and watched some videos…but then what?
Step one: I bought a smoker.
Step two: Make it real. I listed sandwiches for sale on Facebook.
I smoked meat in my backyard and served sandwiches out of my house. Possibly not legal, but really, what’s the alternative?  Having done that ten different times I’ve determined that a) there’s a market for pork sandwiches, and b) despite the seeming convenience, I don’t like cooking and serving out of my home kitchen.
The entire week before a cook I feel like a guest in my own home: I wash my hands (in a non-kitchen sink) every single time I do anything in the kitchen. The surfaces all get wiped down multiple times a day. I use the dishwasher more often (for thorough sanitizing).
For some reason people are good with coming to my driveway, texting me they’re here, and having some strange person bring a sandwich out to them. I repay their trust with not only the best sandwich I’m capable of making, but also with a consciousness around sanitary detail not found in most restaurants.
As convenient as this kind of working-from-home is, I would rather relax at home and work in a commercial kitchen. So that’s where we’re headed.

NEXT WEEK: Facebook frustrations, Durango gratitude, and the future of Rang Tang

1 thought on “10 Things Learned in 10 Cooks // Part One”

  1. Pingback: 10 Things Learned in 10 Cooks // Part Two – Rang Tang Barbecue

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